Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Lynchpin of Logistics

The role of logistics in cooking is axiomatic to trained chefs but it seems to be unknown, unheard of, and unrecognized by regular folks cooking daily meals.

Let us first define the goal. It would be to make nutritious, interesting meals daily, or at least, most evenings. This is what chefs do daily in exchange for money. The home cook tries to do it and, more often than not, fails. The blame is placed on the our harried lives and the "demands on modernity" never mind the fact that we have more instruments (blenders, food processors, dishwashers) that do all the hard work for us than in the bad old days of yore.

The failure can be attributed to the failure of logistics or to put a positive spin on it, the secret to success in the culinary arts lies in logistics.

Great cooking on a regular sustained basis is closer to mobilizing a military campaign than it is to the airy-fairy world of recipes, tastes and thoughts. Creativity, knowledge and technical mastery all play a role but these are pre-requisites in almost any domain of human endeavor. The logistical aspect of cooking gets short shrift from most, particularly cookbook writers, who assume that the audience will pick it up by practice and osmosis.

Importantly, this skill is not ethereal vapor. It's objective and it can be taught and one gets better at it just like the classic Carnegie Hall joke. ("How do you get to the CC's kitchen? Practice, practice, practice.")

There is a skill to the logistical aspect of things and the CC could walk into most people's kitchens and gauge their culinary ability within a minute or two just by observing the organization of their pantry and tools. There would be no role for conversation. A simple cursory observation would do the trick.

The biggest juggling act that a cook must master is managing the pantry.

One of the problems of juggling a pantry is that you must "know yourself". You need to be absolutely crystal clear about your strengths and weaknesses, your desires and hatreds and more importantly, the loves and hates of your target audience. (All cooks have an audience whether it's the paying kind or the not-so-much-paying family and friends variety. If you want to get really technical then all cooking has a serious element of theater in it as well. We, the cooks, are performers.)

Mastering your own pantry and knowing its contents is hard work. It requires you to juggle a ton of variables — long-term stuff (pickles, preserves), frozen stuff (vegetables, preserves, sauces), fresh stuff (herbs, vegetables, meat, etc.)

This is painstakingly difficult work and its complexity must not be underestimated. The price of failure is clear. You toss the waste out but if you want to keep this to a minimum then you must juggle this information either in your head or via a spreadsheet.

You can easily appreciate how important this aspect is in a professional kitchen since it is first and foremost a business. Any wastage accrues directly and negatively to the bottom line.

Planning is also needed in the shopping aspect of things. If you want the best and you want it on a budget then you must juggle all the various ingredients and their locations and their costs. This is something that needs to be learnt and is particularly true of most places in the world that still have separate grocers, butchers and fishermen. (New York is one of the few places in America along with older cities like Boston that still have these supply chains still intact.)

Remember the comparison with military campaigns? The CC was not kidding.

The military has always considered this aspect to be of importance. Now you too can appreciate what Napoleon meant when he said that "an army marches on its stomach" and why the role of quartermaster has always been performed by a relatively senior officer.

The same level of planning goes for the actual execution of the dish. Professional cooks always have a mise en place — French for "putting it in place". All the ingredients are neatly chopped up, arranged and organized in bowls so that the actual cooking is swift and mistake-free. This is particularly important for dishes that require ingredients to go in at a rapid pace e.g. Chinese wok cooking where speed is of the essence and there is no time to dilly-dally with chopping and the like.

Planning extends to cleanup as well. Great home cooks clean as they go and for those with dishwashers, stack as they go. The same goes for professional kitchens where the space is not only cleaned during the execution of dishes but there's also a final cleaning at the end of the night where everything is scrubbed down. Most good cooks will have a clean workplace before the first dish even hits the table.

Traditionally, these skills were under the purview of a course in "Home Economics" since the relationship between money and logistics has always been very clear. This was considered so important that the English classic "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management" has never been out of print since 1861 (although it has been revised by successive generations to keep up with the times.)

The book represents everything that is positive about Victorian England — its progressive, rational, Enlightenment-seeped nature. The preface by Isabella Beeton says it best:
I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it. What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways.
We can excuse Mrs. Beeton for her sexist assumptions which were typical of her time but the progressive sentiment of "teaching the skill of household management" jumps out with etched clarity.

This is never going to be a popular subject because there is no "market" for this. Could you imagine a modern-day book that teaches you how to shop for food or how to organize your pantry? Even worse, are we talking about a Japanese pantry or an Indian one since the needs are so different? What if you wanted multiple pantries like the CC?

The greater your ambition and the wider the net of your daily cooking in terms of multiple cuisines, the larger the role of logistics looms. If it's hard enough to cook a single cuisine daily then it is even harder to manage the pantries of multiple cuisines with conflicting demands and juggle everything so that nothing goes to waste.

Somewhere somehow these skills have gotten lost in the modern shuffle but they are absolutely critical if you want to make amazing food on a regular basis.

To blatantly rip off Napoleon, "a great chef marches on his organization."

† No sexism is implied. As any legal textbook might tell you, "his" includes "hers" as well as "theirs".

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